When Mrs. Apostleman invited several of her friends to a formal dinner given especially for Mrs. Burgoyne everyone realized that the newcomer was accepted, and the event was one of several in which the women of Santa Paloma tried with more than ordinary eagerness to outshine each other. Mrs. Apostleman herself never entered into competition with the younger matrons, nor did they expect it of her. She gave heavy, rich, old-fashioned dinners in her own way, in which her servants were perfectly trained. It was a standing joke among her friends that they always ate too much at Mrs. Apostleman's house, there were always seven or eight substantial courses, and she liked to have the plates come back for more lobster salad or roast turkey. In this, as in all things, she was a law unto herself.
But for the other women, Mrs. White set the pace, and difficult to keep they often found it. But they never questioned it. They admired the richer woman's perfect house-furnishing, and struggled blindly to accumulate the same number and variety of napkins and fingerbowls, ramekins and glasses and candlesticks and special forks and special knives. The first of the month with its bills, became a horror to them, and they were continually promising their husbands, in all good faith, that expenses should positively be cut down.
But what use were good resolves; when one might find, the very next day, that there were no more cherries for the grapefruit, that one had not a pair of presentable white gloves for the club, or that the motor-picnic that the children were planning was to cost them five dollars apiece? To serve grapefruit without cherries, to wear colored gloves, or no gloves at all to the club, and to substitute some inexpensive pleasure for the ride was a course that never occurred to Mrs. Carew, that never occurred to any of her friends. Mrs. Carew might have a very vague idea of her daughter's spiritual needs, she might be an entire stranger to the delicately adjusted and exquisitely susceptible entity that was the real Jeanette, but she would have gone hungry rather than have Jeanette unable to wear white shoes to Sunday School, rather than tie Jeanette's braids with ribbons that were not stiff and new. She was so entirely absorbed in pursuit of the "correct thing," so anxious to read what was "being read," to own what was "right", that she never stopped to seriously consider her own or her daughter's place in the universe. She was glad, of course when the children "liked their teacher," just as she had been glad years before when they "liked their nurse." The reasons for such likings or dislikings she never investigated; she had taken care of the children herself during the nurse's regular days "off", but she always regarded these occasions as so much lost time. Mrs. Carew kept her children, as she kept her house, well- groomed, and she gave about as much thought to the spiritual needs of the one as the other. She had been brought up to believe that the best things in life are to be had for money, and that earthly happiness or unhappiness falls in exact ratio with the possession or non-possession of money. She met the growing demands of her family as well as she could, and practised all sorts of harassing private economies so that, in the eyes of the world, the family might seem to be spending a great deal more money than was actually the case. Mrs. Carew's was not an analytical mind, but sometimes she found herself genuinely puzzled by the financial state of affairs.
"I don't know where the money goes to!" she said, in a confidential moment, to Mrs. Lloyd. They had met in the market, where Mrs. Carew was consulting a long list of necessary groceries.
"Oh, don't speak of it!" said Mrs. Lloyd, feelingly. "That's so, your dinner is tomorrow night, isn't it?" she added with interest. "Are you going to have Lizzie?"
"Oh, dear me, yes! For eight, you know. Shan't you have her?" For Mrs. Lloyd's turn to entertain Mrs. Burgoyne followed Mrs. Carew's by only a few days.
"Lizzie and her mother, too," said the other woman. "I don't know what's the matter with maids in these days," she went on, "they simply can't do things, as my mother's maids used to, for example. Now the four of them will be working all day over Thursday's dinner, and, dear me! it's a simple enough dinner."
"Well, you have to serve so much with a dinner, nowadays," Mrs. Carew said, in a mildly martyred tone. "Crackers and everything else with oysters--I'm going to have cucumber sandwiches with the soup--"
"Delicious!" said Mrs. Lloyd.
"'Cucumbers, olives, salted nuts, currant jelly'", Mrs. Carew was reading her list, "'ginger chutney, saltines, bar-le-duc, cream cheese', those are for the salad, you know, 'dinner rolls, sandwich bread, fancy cakes, Maraschino cherries, maple sugar,' that's to go hot on the ice, I'm going to serve it in melons, and 'candy'--just pink and green wafers, I think. All that before it comes to the actual dinner at all, and it's all so fussy!"
"Don't say one word!" said Mrs. Lloyd, sympathetically. "But it sounds dee-licious!" she added consolingly, and little Mrs. Carew went contentedly home to a hot and furious session in her kitchen; hours of baking, boiling and frying, chopping and whipping and frosting, creaming and seasoning, freezing and straining.
"I don't mind the work, if only everything goes right!" Mrs. Carew would say gallantly to herself, and it must be said to her credit that usually everything did "go right" at her house, although even the maids in the kitchen, heroically attacking pyramids of sticky plates, were not so tired as she was, when the dinner was well over.
But there was a certain stimulus in the mere thought of entertaining Mrs. Burgoyne, and there was the exhilarating consciousness that one of these days she would entertain in turn; so the Santa Paloma housewives exerted themselves to the utmost of their endurance, and one delightful dinner party followed another.
But a dispassionate onlooker from another planet might have found it curious to notice, in contrast to this uniformity, that no two women dressed alike on these occasions, and no woman who could help it wore the same gown twice. Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Carew, to be sure, wore their "little old silks" more than once, but each was secretly consoled by the thought that a really "smart" new gown awaited Mrs. White's dinner; which was naturally the climax of all the affairs. Only the wearers and their dress-makers knew what hours had been spent upon these costumes, what discouraged debates attended their making, what muscular agonies their fitting. Only they could have estimated, and they never did estimate--the time lost over pattern books, the nervous strain of placing this bit of spangled net or that square inch of lace, the hurried trips downtown for samples and linings, for fringes and embroideries and braids and ribbons. The gown that she wore to her own dinner, Mrs. White had had fitted in the Maison Dernier Mot, in Paris;--it was an enchanting frock of embroidered white illusion, over pink illusion, over black illusion, under a short heavy tunic of silver spangles and threads. The yoke was of wonderful old lace, and there was a girdle of heavy pink cords, and silver clasps, to match the aigrette that was held by pink and silver cords in Mrs. White's beautifully arranged hair.
Mrs. Burgoyne's gowns, or rather gown, for she wore exactly the same costume to every dinner, could hardly have been more startling than Santa Paloma found it, had it gone to any unbecoming extreme. Yet it was the simplest of black summer silks, soft and full in the skirt, short-sleeved, and with a touch of lace at the square-cut neck. She arranged her hair in a becoming loose knot, and somehow managed to look noticeably lovely and distinguished, in the gay assemblies. To brighten the black gown she wore a rope of pearls, looped twice about her white throat, and hanging far below her waist; pearls, as Mrs. Adams remarked in discouragement later, that "just made you feel what's the use! She could wear a kitchen apron with those pearls if she wanted to, everyone would know she could afford cloth of gold and ermine!"
With this erratic and inexplicable simplicity of dress she combined the finish of manner, the poise, the ready sympathies of a truly cultivated and intelligent woman. She could talk, not only of her own personal experiences, but of the political, and literary, and scientific movements of the day. Certain proposed state legislation happened to be interesting the men of Santa Paloma at this time, and she seemed to understand it, and spoke readily of it.
"But, George," said Mrs. Carew, walking home in the summer night, after the Adams dinner, "you have often said you hated women to talk about things they didn't understand."
"But she does understand, dearie. That's just the point."
"Yes; but you differed with her, George!"
"Well, but that's different, Jen. She knew what she was talking about."
"I suppose she has friends in Washington who keep her informed," said Mrs. Carew, a little discontentedly, after a silence. And there was another pause before she said, "Where do men get their information, George?"
"Papers, dear. And talking, I suppose. They're interested, you know."
"Yes, but--" little Mrs. Carew burst out resentfully, "I never can make head or tail of the papers! They say 'Aldrich Resigns,' or 'Heavy Blow to Interests,' or 'Tammany Scores Triumph,' and I don't know what it's about!"
George Carew's big laugh rang out in the night, and he put his arm about her, and said, "You're great, Jen!"
Shortly after Mrs. White's dinner a certain distinguished old artist from New York, and his son, came to stay a night or two at Holly Hall, on their way home from the Orient, and Mrs. Burgoyne took this occasion to invite a score of her new friends to two small dinners, planned for the two nights of the great Karl von Praag's stay in Santa Paloma.
"I don't see how she's going to handle two dinners for ten people each, with just that colored cook of hers and one waitress," said Mrs. Willard White, late one evening, when Mr. White was finishing a book and a cigar in their handsome bedroom, and she was at her dressing-table.
"Caterers," submitted Mr. White, turning a page.
"I suppose so," his wife agreed. After a thoughtful silence she added, "Sue Adams says that she supposes that when a woman has as much money as that she loses all interest in spending it! Personally, I don't see how she can entertain a great big man like Von Praag in that old-fashioned house. She never seems to think of it at all, she never apologizes for it, and she talks as if nobody ever bought new things until the old were worn out!"
Her eyes went about her own big bedroom as she spoke. Nothing old- fashioned here! Even eighteen years ago, when the Whites were married, their home had been furnished in a manner to make the Holly Hall of to-day look out of date. Mrs. White shuddered now at the mere memory of what she as a bride had thought so beautiful: the pale green carpet, the green satin curtains, the white-and-gold chairs and tables and bed, the easels, the gilded frames! Seven or eight years later she had changed all this for a heavy brass bedstead, and dark rugs on a polished floor, and bird's-eye maple chests and chairs, and all feminine Santa Paloma talked of the Whites' new things. Six or seven years after that again, two mahogany beds replaced the brass one, and heavy mahogany bureaus with glass knobs had their day, with plain net curtains and old- fashioned woven rugs. But all these were in the guest-rooms now, and in her own bedroom Mrs. White had a complete set of Circassian walnut, heavily carved, and ornamented with cunningly inset panels of rattan. On the beds were covers of Oriental cottons, and the window-curtains showed the same elementary designs in pinks and blues.
"She dresses very prettily, I thought," observed Mr. White, apropos of his wife's last remark.
"Dresses!" echoed his wife. "She dresses as your mother might!"
"Very pretty, very pretty!" said the man absently, over his book.
There was a silence. Then:
"That just shows how much men notice," Mrs. White confided to her ivory-backed brush. "I believe they like women to look like frumps!"